Picnic at Hanging Rock
Mythic Symbolism, Time and Being, in Joan Lindsay's Novel
An idea that is very deep when taken seriously, is that this, that we are living as our lives, is a living Myth, a dream. It is of course one in which there can arise profound experience. But in Hinduism it is a living Myth in the sense that it is an experience of being, played out through an illusion called time.
Many artists and writers and philosophers have sensed it or known it. Most notably, it is already centrally inherent in Hinduism, but not, actually, in a way that necessarily puts it inside a box, and makes it exclusive to those who call themselves Hindus.
Hindus naturally believe that Hinduism contains the Truth. The Truth about the universe, the Truth about our constitution and situation. But really, Truth isn't anything that can be contained in anything. Rather, if there is indeed Truth in Hinduism, then Hinduism doesn't contain it, but expresses it, in its own way.
So Hinduism isn't the only expression about time and being, in which what happens in time is portrayed as an illusion - a play of being. Or, to be more accurate, in Hinduism, it is portrayed as something called Maya, which gives rise to what the Hindu Puranas call "delusion" in those who are caught up in the play of it. The play of it is something that Hinduism calls a lila.
But many artists, writers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers, in their work, have been concerned in their own way, with time and being, and the relation between time and being. It's not something just confined to Hinduism. It's not even confined to the East, or for example to Buddhism, which arose out of Hinduism. The recognition of the connection between time and being is already here, not just in philosophy, notably including Plato, but also in our Western popular literature.
For example, Joan Lindsay's unusual consciousness of time was expressed in her novels Time Without Clocks, and her best-selling story Picnic at Hanging Rock. Of course, being a Western work, Picnic at Hanging Rock is not Hinduism. It's not that Joan Lindsay wrote a story expressing Hinduism. But rather, as a narrative that is clearly one of spiritual, modern Mythic symbolism, it is not surprising that it contains parallels. The spiritual dimension and symbolism of Picnic at Hanging Rock at least should be clear, unless one chooses to regard the supernatural elements, such as the twelve appearances of a white swan (a ubiquitous spiritual symbol), and so forth, as merely incidental.
Really, there should be no doubt. Joan Lindsay herself, in Chapter Seventeen of the published version (as we shall see, the publisher omitted the last chapter), writes an article from 'a Melbourne newspaper', dated St Valentine's Day 1913, in which she says that one of the central characters, Irma, now a Countess:
… has granted interviews to various interested bodies, including the Society for Psychical Research...
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a story that some have argued reflects aspect of the Australian aboriginal dreamtime. But then, aboriginal dreamtime, and Hinduism, also share something in common - the dream.
In the Mythic Symbolism of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan quite explicitly draws on a deeper understanding of time as the fabric of our experience, and as something that is all around us, rather than in a "straight line" from past to future, in the way that the Western mind usually likes to see it.
In her video interviews she related how her own experience of things went beyond the idea of "what comes before" and "what comes after". A little research will reveal that apart from her remembering St Valentine's Day (on which she was married), dates, like clock time, had very little meaning for her, to the extent that at one point in her life she had to ask a friend to find out when she had been born. And when she was told, she remarked "apparently I was not present at my own birth" (see Terence O'Neill, Joan Lindsay: a time for everything, La Trobe Journal, 83, 2009, 41-52).
The timeless is played out in her books, and, indeed, in Picnic at Hanging Rock events that determine the spreading of a pattern of disruption through lives, happen early-on in the story, literally, within the narrative, whilst the clocks are inexplicably stopped, "dead at twelve o'clock".
Set in Australia on Valentine's day, 1900, in Picnic at Hanging Rock what happens in this timeless time whilst the clocks are stopped, is the disappearance of two schoolgirls and a teacher, in their ascent up the "Rock". The timescale of the Rock is enormous compared to actual human lives, a point explicitly played out in the early dialogue when the girls are still approaching the Hanging Rock.
As they approach the Rock, Marion, one of the girls who will disappear, declares "those peaks... they must be a million years old". Edith, who will start but fail to make the ascent, cannot stand such talk. Marion continues to point out that Edith's body is made up of millions and millions of cells, and that she has already lived for millions and millions of seconds. Such references to what is beyond the security of the finite and the personal, makes Edith giddy. Edith, in fact, only comes to be climbing the Rock in the first place, because she essentially "tags along" with the other girls.
The relation of time to spiritual ascent is subtly but centrally reflected in Picnic at Hanging Rock. In the story, the girl who leads the ascent up "the rock" is Miranda. Joan depicts Miranda as the most spiritual of all the characters:
Why was it, Irma wondered, that God made some people so plain and disagreeable and others beautiful and kind like Miranda...
Just before Miranda leads the ascent up the "Rock", her true nature is explicitly recognised by the French teacher, who says "Mon Dieu! (My God!) Now I know...", as she realises the beautiful Miranda is an angel painted by Botticelli, that she had seen at the Uffizi.
Shortly afterwards, we encounter one of the twelve images of white swans in the story. The three girls have to first cross a creek. (I should mention here that there are, in Hinduism, also bodies of water that must be crossed in order to make the spiritual ascent to the transcendental). Later, the young man Mike who seems to have fallen in love with Miranda at first sight, remembers how Miranda crosses the creek with ease, unlike Edith who stumbles:
Miranada, tall and fair, skimmed it like a white swan.
In response to talk of the enormous scale of time, which Edith could not stand, Joan Lindsay tells us:
Miranda, illumined by a calm wordless joy, merely smiled back.
The calm, wordless joy that comes from spiritual illumination, is referred to in Hinduism as transcendental mellow.
In contrast to Miranda, of those who ascend the "Rock", the girl depicted the least spiritually is Edith, whom the character list describes as 'the college dunce', and whom in the prose is also called 'as plain as a frog'. Edith finds the ascent too arduous, and fails to make it, finally running back down, screaming.
Irma, the beautiful and wealthy girl whom we have already mentioned, almost succeeds, but in clock time is found unconscious and alive on the "rock" a whole week later, as if she had been there only a few hours. Much is made of the fact that such a survival in the outback for that length of clock time would be expected to be impossible, but she is unharmed, except for a few scratches and bruises.
The import is again about time. In Lindsay's Mythic symbolism, time for those ascending the Rock is not the same as clock time. In fact, in the narrative, in order for the girls to ascend the "Rock", clock time down on the plain, has symbolically stopped "dead at twelve o'clock". When this happens, Miranda, Joan Lindsay's symbol of transcendental love, of course already transcends "clock time". Following the stopping of all the watches, when the French teacher asks Miranda for the time from her "pretty little diamond watch", she replies:
I'm sorry Mam'selle. I don't wear it anymore. I can't stand hearing it ticking all day long just above my heart.
In Hinduism, the higher the spiritual ascent, the more time elapses on the "lower slopes", until eventually, at the threshold to the transcendental, there is the Ākāśa in which everything is happening now, and will "go on happening until the end of time". However, time is also being. And every moment of being in our existence is made from an infinite expansion and involution of the Being, the Brahman. And so it is that even a single instant of "clock time" contains infinitely involuted time from higher in the ascent. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, all the events relating to the ascent of the girls take place whilst the watches are stopped "dead at 12 o'clock", but "clock time" time nonetheless continues, as it always must.
In the Hindu scheme this Ākāśa is "air", "atmosphere" or "ether", from which the "unmanifest one", the Brahman, the Being, descends through further "coverings" of the "egg". Inside the "egg", beneath the "coverings" and the Ākāśa, material existence with its "clock time" is created.
In the missing final Chapter Eighteen (now available as The Secret of the Rock), the girls who complete the ascent, remove their corsets (the constraint of their bodies), and cast them off the rock, but there, instead of falling, they too, remain, as Joan Lindsay says, 'stuck fast in time'. She says they are 'becalmed on the windless air'.
The girls (and by now one of the teachers who has followed them) have arrived at a place where there are 'no shadows', and 'the light too is unchanging'. The spiritual allegory is clear.
There is even an "egg" in Lindsay's prose, encountered before reaching the light:
Miranda had been the first to see the monolith - a single outcrop of stone something like a monstrous egg...
In the Hindu picture everything that unfolds in time and space is the playing out of the lila of being, of countless beings who in Reality are expansions of the Brahman, the one Being, all taking their appearance and dissolution according to the eternal Churning from which all things emerge and disappear. Beings emerge to take part in an ocean of streams of stories.
If we know the Hindu picture of time we are not surprised to find that in Picnic at Hanging Rock, after the disappearance of Miranda, Irma remembers:
"Miranda used to say that everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place"…
or that before the ascent as Miranda walks away from the plain towards the Rock and the ascent, she turns and smiles to the French teacher, saying:
"Don't worry about us, Mam'selle dear, we shall only be gone a very little while".
The disappearance of the two schoolgirls and the teacher simply cannot be translated back into "rational" actuality or fact, or "clock time". Really, that is the whole point of the story, and why it is a mystery.
Translation back into "rational" actuality or fact, or "clock time", cannot be done even by reading the missing Chapter Eighteen (now available) which reveals, in entertaining Mythic symbolism, what was at the top of the ascent. This chapter, the publisher shrewdly left out of the book, turning Joan's own brand of mysticism into a more conventional but compelling mystery woven with elements of the supernatural.
Ever since its publication, Picnic at Hanging Rock has provoked controversy as to "what happened on the Rock". In a note at the beginning of Picnic at Hanging Rock Lindsay states:
Whether picnic at hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
Here we are handed the answer. Lindsay is leading the reader here. But few, it would seem, take the clue. In truth, every human being who has ever lived is consigned to this status, because all human beings die and soon become long since dead. But the world believes in "clock time", and clings to the notion of personal importance.
The truth is that the status of persons and their role in the endless stream of stories of persons, whether you want to think of it as fact or fiction, is, as Joan Lindsay knew, unimportant in the illusion of time. Even though it creates the history of the world, in "clock time".
Unlike Joan Lindsay, most people do believe clock time to be "reality". And so when it comes to Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock countless people have endeavoured to find out and satisfy themselves as to the "facts" of "what really happened on the rock". They believe in an actuality, unfolding in clock time, without ever understanding that the actuality experienced by human beings, is already a fiction, a myth, even as it is happening.
Like Joan Lindsay's "timeless clockless summers of a dream" that she speaks of in Time Without Clocks, it is only above the interpretation of things according to "clock time", that we begin to see the truth behind the human experience of being.
The great scheme of things in both Hinduism and Buddhism is one in which anything that seems to exist only does so in the context of what Hinduism calls the lila - a play of being - of which it is a part. In Hinduism every moment of time-bound being arises from an immeasurable expansion and involution of the one Being that Hinduism calls the Brahman. In the West, we call it God.
The result, in the Hindu picture, is that every moment of time in our little human experience of being is already created from eternally preserved, timeless stories of being in which we are participating, derived from the "ether" or "space" of Hindu cosmology, the eternal Ākāśa that is above "clock time" .
And so also, does Joan Lindsay in Picnic at Hanging Rock say:
There is no single instant on this spinning globe that is not, for millions of individuals, immeasurable by ordinary standards of time: a fragment of eternity forever unrelated to the calendar or the striking clock.
In Picnic at Hanging Rock as it was published, minus that last chapter (Chapter Eighteen), and with a few adjustments necessary to make the edited version work, during the ascent of the girls the prose reads:
So on a million summer evenings would the shadows lengthen upon the cracks and pinnacles of the Hanging Rock.
We can see easily this was substituted for the opening of the missing Chapter Eighteen, which rather more explicitly reads:
It is happening now. As it has been happening ever since Edith Horton ran stumbling and screaming towards the plain. As it will go on happening until the end of time. The scene is never varied by so much as the falling of the leaf or the flight of a bird. To the four people on the Rock it is always acted out in the tepid twilight of a present without a past. Their joys and agonies are forever new.
This is clearly Joan Lindsay telling us that what she has been describing in the story is the playing out of an eternal, archetypal "image" that persists beyond its playing out in time. If you are familiar with the Hindu corpus it is easy to see that this is Joan Lindsay's own description of what also appears in the fabric of Hinduism, as the timeless "memory" of the Ākāśa at the root of what we experience as time.
Finally, we could mention how in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Irma, having already ascended some way up "the rock" (the spiritual ascent), looks down upon the picnic ground, the plain below, and says:
"Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants"?
By now she is already looking down from a higher place, beyond the unfolding of events in "clock time". From her vantage point, she hears
... a rather curious sound coming up from the plain. Like the beating of far-off drums.
Later in "clock time" the drag driver Mr Hussey searches for the missing girls, beating two billie cans with a crowbar (statement made to the police by Mr Hussey).
As Irma looks down upon the plain, she sees the truth for herself, the answer to her own question about what all the people are doing down there. Looking at the people below, like ants, she goes on to see, from her position here, higher in the ascent:
"A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it's probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves".
What a strange observation. Or is it? Not really strange at all, in the context of Hinduism. Indeed, Hinduism even has its own word for this very state of affairs, in which all beings, through their lifetimes, are moving, unknown to themselves, towards the circumstances necessary for their own ascent. The word is karma.
All cultures and religions have their own attendant "language", their own cultural way of expressing spiritual matters. In Hinduism, the Puranas have their own Mythic symbolism, and there is a certain fidelity between the nature of the mind that arises in the culture, and the nature of the Mythic symbolism. The same is true of any culture, and its expression of spiritual matters. It is always expressed through the fabric of the culture and the religion.
What happens then, in the modern world of scientific knowledge? There is a mind, or an aspect of the mind, that arises from even in the age of modern science, where the need also arises to speak of spiritual matters. The nature of spiritual Truth doesn't change. What changes is the nature of the expression of language that undertakes to talk about it. There is absolutely no reason why Mythic symbolism with that aim, should not arise even in the context of the modern, scientific world.
This indeed happens in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which, although the story is set in the year 1900, was actually written in 1967. We hadn't yet landed on the moon, but we were well into the age of understanding of quantum theory, and the Theory of Relativity, which, since 1916 had predicted the existence in the universe of what we now call black holes - points in the space-time continuum that amount to a "hole in space (and time)". Whilst we had yet to attain empirical evidence of a black hole, the term itself was popularised by the American astronomer John Wheeler in the fall of 1967.
Whether Joan Lindsay had heard of the term, or whether her reference to a "hole in space" in Chapter Eighteen of Picnic at Hanging Rock, actually pre-empted it, has not been established. But either way, the coincidence between John Wheeler's coining of the phrase black hole, and Joan Lindsay's use of the concept of a "hole in space" in the Mythic symbolism of Picnic at Hanging Rock, is something that in itself undoubtedly happened. And the reason anyone might notice it in the first place, is because of the "cultural fabric" of the times in which we are living, that derives from scientific knowledge.
One thing is pretty clear though: Joan Lindsay's reference to it is not science fiction. It's Mythic symbolism. Mythic symbolism that is entirely appropriate to the overall cultural fabric of the modern Western world. In the narrative, Miranda, Irma and (by inference in the narrative) the teacher, are literally said to be arriving in the light. Miranda has already said this is happening, and the teacher says:
"The girl Miranda is correct. I can see her heart, and it is full of understanding. Every living creature is due to arrive somewhere..."
The "hole in space" Lindsay writes, is:
... a presence, not an absence - a concrete affirmation of truth.
She goes on to write:
She had passed a lifetime asking questions and now they were answered, simply by looking at the hole. It faded out, and at last she was at peace.
The spiritual context is clear. To some, for a narrative dealing with spiritual matters, Lindsay's prose in Chapter Eighteen might seem rather lighthearted, and even funny. But then, that was probably the intention, and we could say the same thing about about some of the material in the Indian Puranas.